JERUSALEM, (AP) – Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday that he would not pull his faction from the government over its handling of the 2006 war against Hezbollah guerillas, an announcement that removed any immediate threat to Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s administration.
Barak had said before he replaced wartime Defense Minister Amir Peretz in June that he would push for Olmert’s resignation, or early elections, after an independent commission delivered its final report on Israeli missteps during the war with Hezbollah guerillas. The report delivered Wednesday criticized Olmert’s government for “serious failings and flaws” but largely spared the prime minister himself, who is pursuing his declared goal of signing a peace treaty with the Palestinians this year.
Barak said before Israel’s weekly Cabinet meeting that he had decided to stay to fix the problems exposed by the report.
“Why am I staying? I’m staying in the post of defense minister because I know what kind of challenges face Israel — Gaza, Hezbollah, Syria, Iran, the rehabilitation of the military and the political process,” Barak said.
Olmert issued his first public comment on the report at the start of the meeting, without addressing Barak’s decision to remain in his government.
“This report is not a source of happiness,” Olmert said. “It’s the source of the possibility for an opportunity to correct things that were uncovered, to improve them and rebuild, if necessary, and lead Israel forward.”
If Barak had pulled his Labor Party’s 19-member faction out of the coalition, Olmert would have been stripped of his parliamentary majority and likely forced to move up elections, currently scheduled for November 2010. His coalition now controls 67 of parliament’s 120 seats.
But with Labor trailing badly in public opinion polls, Barak apparently decided his party’s political fortunes — and his own — would be better served by remaining in the government. Barak hopes to reclaim the premiership he lost in 2001 elections, but polls would hand the race to hawkish opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu of the hardline Likud Party if balloting were held today.
A Netanyahu victory would bode poorly for President Bush’s goal of brokering a Mideast peace accord before leaving office next January.
Given the poll results, Barak’s decision to remain in government had been expected, even at the cost of his credibility.
“I know that I could pay a political price for this decision,” he declared in announcing his plans, which had broad Labor backing.
The war erupted on July 12, 2006, when Hezbollah guerrillas crossed into Israel, killed three Israeli soldiers and captured two others.
Olmert entered the conflict with enormous support from the Israeli public, but his popularity plunged after the monthlong campaign failed to achieve his declared goals — winning the soldiers’ release and crushing Hezbollah. The two soldiers have not been heard from.
Despite a heavy Israeli aerial campaign, Hezbollah bombarded northern Israel with nearly 4,000 rockets. Israeli reservists returning from the battlefield complained of poor training and a lack of ammunition and key supplies.
Between 1,035 and 1,191 Lebanese civilians and combatants were killed during the war, as were 119 Israeli soldiers and 40 civilians, according to official figures from both sides.